Ashley on Cultural Appropriation

Christina here, letting Ashley (from our polyamory adventures!) do a guest post!

Here she goes:

Hello all!  Ashley here.  I want to open the doors for discussion on a topic that I hadn’t heard much about until fairly recently: cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation is the borrowing of an element or elements from a different culture.  It tends to have a very negative connotation involving racism, post-colonialist paternalism, and presumptuousness. People use the term to describe when people use very significant elements from a culture without understanding how to do so respectfully and end up stereotyping the original culture.  This was discussed quite a bit last Halloween with Ohio University’s STARS student group’s “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign.  In the campaign people would hold up a poster of someone in a costume that stereotyped their ethnicities with the words “We’re a culture, not a costume.  This is not who I am and this is not okay”.  Stereotyping is generally bad, yes, but where is the line between respectfully borrowing or adopting cultural elements and contributing to stereotyping and cultural appropriation?

What spurred the writing of this blog was this comic and the subsequent comments.  Don’t just skip over the link, go look!  The first commenter said “I don’t care if the person did real research. I don’t care if they do know and understand the significance of the item/tattoo/whatever. IT IS STILL CULTURAL APPROPRIATION AND IT IS STILL RACIST”. I don’t agree with that statement at all.  If that were the case then eating ramen noodles, using the word “garage”, or wearing rainbows could all count as cultural appropriation and yet I don’t think most people would think doing any of those things are racist or culturally appropriated despite “ramen” style noodles being Asian, “garage” having French etymology, and rainbows being a recognized symbol of Queer culture.  American assimilation of these words happened through exposure to them via contact with members of those other cultures.  Assimilation is one of the many ways that people react to acculturation, which is what occurs when a member or members of one culture adapts to or borrows elements from another culture that they’ve had prolonged exposure to.

When two or more cultures come into contact with each other there’s bound to be some cross cultural transmission.   Trying to avoid picking up cultural elements from other cultures that you have contact with is like trying to avoid bringing sand back home with you after visiting a beach; you may think you didn’t bring any back, but you shake out your shoe and there’s a pile of sand.  That’s because culture is meant to be easily transmittable.   My favorite definition of culture comes from the fourth edition of David Matsumoto and Linda Juang’s textbook, “Culture & Psychology”.  They define culture as “a unique meaning and information system, shared by a group and transmitted across generations, that allows the group to meet basic needs of survival, pursue happiness and well-being, and derive meaning from life” (Matsumoto 12).  This definition is inclusive without being prescriptive.

On one hand I can understand why people in marginalized or minority groups might be upset having a privileged person borrow their cultural elements, especially if they feel it’s done in a disrespectful way.  There’s a complex shared history of power imbalance, degradation, and exploitation.  I think it’s perfectly fair for a group to feel upset that the things they assign value to are being (in their eyes) disrespected.  However, if culture can be a type of knowledge or idea, can it really be owned by anyone?

You might be thinking, “Sure they can!  We have intellectual property laws,” to which I would respond that culture is not something which can be bought or sold like music or a book, it’s more like a mathematical theorem since it’s something to be applied and utilized.  The problem with the idea of owning a culture is that many cultural elements rely on symbolism/symbols to convey cultural ideas but the chosen symbol may not have the same meanings attached for other cultures.  Take, for example, the nose piercing.  It’s a common symbol in south Asian areas as a symbol of beauty, social status, and marriage.  In places like America getting a nose piercing is something usually done for aesthetic reasons.   It’s the same thing but the meaning is different.  “Yes but some things are sacred,” you might assert.  Things are only sacred to the people who assign sacred properties to them.  There is nothing inherently sacred about a particular series of movements, a body part, or a particular animal.

So dismissing the notion that some things are inherently sacrosanct leads us into the turbulent waters around the topic of religion.  Religion seems like it would be one of the most fiercely guarded cultural elements since it’s highly personal and people assign a high level of sacredness to the rites, rituals, and beliefs involved.  However that’s not the case.  Many religions encourage the conversion of others into the faith.

In short, knowing exactly where to draw the line when adopting cultural elements is hard, it’s easy to step on toes and offend people if you’re not careful, but even still cross cultural sharing (be it through organic cultural diffusion or purposeful borrowing) is worthwhile and can be a celebration of diversity.

Follow Ashley @keonabug.

Learn more about Christina and follow her @ziztur.


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  • DuWayne

    Something else that I think gets lost in that mix, is that in a lot of cases people know little to nothing about the culture or the element of that culture that they are appropriating. People quite naturally follow trends and trends often appropriate some cultural element or another. One of the most amusing, if not occasionally disturbing examples of this is how people who are wealthy/not impoverished appropriate elements of the lifestyles of the poor. A lot of “peasant” food is considered a delicacy. When I was a teen it became very cool to wear clothes from thrift shops – giving rise to a wave of second hand clothing boutiques and even lines of expensive new clothes that are made to appear second hand.

    It is impossible to avoid picking up the elements of other cultures. People quite naturally function as conduits for cultural transmission, that is how culture exists. It is also why trends happen – they are the natural result of our conduction of culture.

    While there are cases where quite egregious appropriations occur, for the most part they are benign – though sometimes people are offended by even benign appropriations. Such is their right, but I sometimes feel compelled to remind them that the very culture whose appropriation offends them was largely derived from elements of cultures that came before. And in most cases it was derived as a result of colonialism, war or unfair trade practices on the part of the secondary culture. A lot of people seem to believe that because the source of a given element of their culture has been forgotten, it is irrelevant. They tend not to consider that someday the elements they are concerned about will have been a part of the culture that is appropriating them long enough that the source will similarly have been forgotten.

    I absolutely love this topic. It’s more than a little bit fascinating.

  • eric

    Hmmm…that link leads to the ‘glittergeek’ page. Didn’t see any tattoo in evidence. Is the link correct and I just missed something?

    • ashleyjones

      Ashley here. Thanks for pointing that out! It’s been fixed.

  • Cluisanna

    This is, indeed, a very fascinating topic, I bet especially for Americans, “melting pot” and all that. I think there is a really clear line between what is ok and what isn’t, and that is if you *take* the cultural element, that is usually bad, but if it is *offered* to you, you can safely accept it.
    I.e. if I see a guy with a pretty hat that somehow seems to be important in his culture and create a similar hat because I think it’s “stylish”, that’s *taking*. If someone invites me to hir house and lets me take part in a cultural tradition, that is of course not racist at all.
    What I also find very interesting here is the aspect of forced cultural appropriation. I mean, one *could* say that all the countries where people speak English these days have appropriated English culture, but that is of course stupid. Also, some things have become so “mainstream” that they don’t belong to any certain culture anymore, for instance the idea of Democracy.

    • DuWayne

      I think there is a really clear line between what is ok and what isn’t, and that is if you *take* the cultural element, that is usually bad, but if it is *offered* to you, you can safely accept it.

      I don’t think it’s clear at all. First of all, there is the issue of ambiguous cultural appropriations. Take foods for example. The Brits have done a hell of a job fully integrating Indian spices into their cuisine – believe you me, there is an ugly goddamned history behind that. Taco Bell (nuff said I hope). Then there’s the “homeless chic” and clothing lines that mimic what poor people can afford to wear. Most cultural appropriation is ambiguous, complicated and well outside the realm of “if then” dichotomies.

      Secondly, the vast majority of cultural appropriation is done at a cultural level. Most of the people appropriating other culture are doing so indirectly, with minimal knowledge of or understanding of the culture from which the trend they’re following came from. Are we really going to argue that any such appropriation is “wrong?”

      Third, who grants the giver the right to represent their culture? One of the biggest problems here is that in many cases there are a lot fo people who are offended by the appropriations, while many others could care less. Who do we listen to? Or do we just say no to avoid offending? What if those who want to share get offended by our not taking part?

      Finally, the cultures we appropriate from appropriated most of their culture from someone else. That is just how culture works. We pick up what we find compelling from other cultures, while holding on to what we find most compelling about our own. The sum of any culture is made up of appropriations and the evolution of both those appropriations and their base culture.

      I’m not trying to be an asshole (though may well be failing), but this is not at all simple. Indeed it is incredibly complicated for someone like myself, whose entire cultural identity is based on the bastardization of bastardizations of innumerable cultures, thrown into a mixer, baked into bread and turned to cubes for stuffing. My entire cultural experience is steeped in traditions that have been festering and growing between here (MI) and New York for nearly five centuries. And that’s not the half of it.

      • Cluisanna

        Actually, I do think it is this easy. I am talking, of course, about the personal level, i.e. how can I as a person decide whether this is racist/harmful or not.
        Taco Bell doesn’t tell me anything, sorry? (I’m not from the USA)
        I don’t think spices are all that cultural – combinations of spices and dishes, yes, but I don’t think Indians “own” certain plants because they live where these plants grow any more than I “own” beeches because I’m from northern Europe.
        ‘Homeless chic’ is not really about racism, is it? I mean, I get that it is classist, but it is about intra-cultural relations.
        Yes, I think if you just see something you consider awesome and don’t bother to find out whether other people are actually okay with you using this (i.e. if they are “offering” it to you) you are doing something wrong. And I think every ‘member’ of a culture has a right to offer parts of it to ‘outsiders’. Actually, what I hear quite often is instead of buying cheap knockoffs of for instance Native American art, one should rather buy it from Native American artists themselves.
        I really don’t get your argument (you’re not being an asshole, btw ^^) Of course the whole process of cultural relations is extremely complicated (the idea of “American culture” is a prime example of this), but I can’t think of a situation where it would be particularly hard for an individual to make a decision regarding this.

        • DuWayne

          Spices and food in general are very important aspects of a given culture – especially when they carry the baggage that the inclusion of Indian spices in UK cuisine is considered. Or the bastardization of Mexican cooking into a fast food experience (Taco Bell) is considered – and that is just the tip of the iceburg. Food is generally the very first thing that colonialism coopts – largely because that is what is available to the colonists. It rarely takes long to integrate them into the parasite’s culture, heading home with the resources being exploited from the native culture.

          When it comes to the most exploitative aspects of cultural appropriation, they don’t happen at the individual level, they happen at the cultural level. Large swaths of a given population taking part is what makes it noticeable and problematic. Take the U.S. American propensity for coopting native American art and religious/spiritual artifacts, as you mention. Often enough, there is little difference between buying it from some random artist, than buying from a “real” native American. Not all native Americans actually follow the beliefs related to them or give to hoots for their cultural significance. I used to do a lot of drugs with a native American who made hats, dream catchers and medicine bags that were sold for a fair chunk of change, because they were made by a legitimate native American. He was full blood native American and could have cared less about his cultural heritage, except insofar as he could make money from it, doing stuff he could work on when he was fucked up.

          My point is that this is not clear cut, not simple at all. Again, even given permission from one person to coopt some aspect of their culture doesn’t necessarily mean you should. My friend would give you all sorts of permission to do whatever you please and happily feed you complete bullshit about what you might buy from him. Do those things in front of a native American who actually cares and you would deeply offend. So whose permission should you consider valid?

          ‘Homeless chic’ is not really about racism, is it? I mean, I get that it is classist, but it is about intra-cultural relations.

          Complete bullshit. Do you honestly believe that someone who is homeless or just this side of it lives in the same culture as someone who can afford to spend five hundred dollars on a pair of pants to look like him or her? Having spent several years of my early adult life effectively homeless, I can tell you they don’t – any more than my couch surfing self had the same cultural experience as street people. In the U.S. (and I strongly suspect where you live) there are significant enough differences between various groups that there are a lot of different cultures living beside each other – sometimes within spitting distance.

          Class, race, ethnicity and geography are all factors in cultural differences. These are all cause for huge cultural diversity in the U.S. moreso than a lot of places. The same thing is true of China, where for all the centuries of attempted forced homogenization, there is still a great deal of cultural diversity. These do not make for intracultural issues, these make for intercultural issues. And there are very good reasons for understanding culture this way.

      • Cluisanna

        (Replying to your first post so that the comment is easier to read.)
        I don’t get it. I took your first comment to mean “Cultural appropriation is a way too complex process for me to personally care about.” That’s why I said that no, indeed, especially on a personal level it isn’t that hard to not be racist. Now you seem to be saying I am the one that got it all wrong. I mean I may have misunderstood you, but then, so have you apparently.

        I think my point about the spices still stands. Like I said, there is a difference between spice combinations (e.g. Curry) and dishes and just plants. I mean, seriously, you can’t say Native Americans ‘own’ tomatoes just because they happened to live in the region where they originally grew, especially if other people cook entirely different dishes with them, like a lot of the Italian cuisine.

        Regarding your friend, if you weren’t able to tell he wasn’t sincere about the sharing of his culture, than I think it would be okay to enjoy the parts of his culture he shared when you expressed your sincere interest. HOWEVER, if other people told you that this is not okay in their eyes, it would be on you to reconsider this. Again, I don’t think that this is hard.

        So you’re saying discriminating against and marginalizing homeless, or generally poor people is racist? What? Maybe we are talking about different cultural structures here, but I think if I put my race as “poor” people would laugh at me. Of course there are social groups that can be identified by certain characteristics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a culture in the same way that an ethnic group with certain religious beliefs, cultural traditions, languages, etc. would be. For instace “Hipster” is a sort of culture too, but I don’t think it would be particularly morally wrong of my to start wearing large glasses because I like the way the look on self-identified Hipsters. (Not that I do.) Also, of course it is classist to make fun of certain lifestyles by performing them ironically and with clear reference to people who are forced by circumstance to live in this way, but for instance “buying used cloths” isn’t some univesal cultural practice of poor American people, let alone poor people in general.

        • Cluisanna

          Me again. The “race: poor” comment was over the top, I apologize. I know that’s not what you mean.
          However, I still think that there is a difference between characteristics that are important to you because they are traditional and represent your heritage, and characteristics that you chose yourself (e.g. being a sceptic) and those that you are unwillingly and rather arbitrarily subjected to (e.g. being poor), even if those characteristics put you in the view of society into a certain group of people.

        • DuWayne

          I don’t get it. I took your first comment to mean “Cultural appropriation is a way too complex process for me to personally care about.”

          That is almost the polar opposite of where I am coming from. To the contrary I think it’s extremely important to consider this because there are a lot of needlessly egregious and hurtful offenses made ever day that we should not be making. But I also think it’s important to understand that it isn’t a clear cut, black and white issue.

          That’s why I said that no, indeed, especially on a personal level it isn’t that hard to not be racist.

          On a personal level it isn’t, but even then it isn’t always that simple. But again, my point is that the worst of cultural appropriation doesn’t happen on the personal level.

          I think my point about the spices still stands.

          Try telling that to someone who was directly affected by British colonial rule in India. And this is exactly my point about it not being simple. I love Indian food and I also happen to be fond of British hybrid Indian food. I also love me some U.S. American chai – and I am not going to avoid those things because it happens to offend some people. But I also recognize why my loving those things is problematic – though given the insulation of time, it bothers less people today.

          Keep in mind that just 65 years ago, India was still under British domination and not fucking willingly. Anglo-Indian cuisine came as a direct result of the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent. Needless to say, I should hope, that there were a whole lot of Indians and still are some who find the whole notion of Anglo-Indian cuisine reprehensible because of it’s history. Chai, as U.S. Americans call it, is the result of the East India Company’s desire to sell more tea in India itself. They were quite disheartened when Indians started mixing tea with the spices traditionally found in marsala chai, because it meant they bought less tea.

          This is what I mean by cultural appropriation happening at a cultural level and becoming complicated. That I happen to love the shit out of some UK style curries is offensive to some people and ultimately reasonably so – they have good reason to be fucking pissed off. The Brits were pretty shitty to Indians when they occupied India and they were really shitty about fucking leaving. What they appropriated from Indian culture came at a high price to the Indians. But what was appropriated from Indian culture by the Brits was then appropriated by other peoples who had nothing to do with British occupation of India. Moreover, what has been appropriated is, in many cases, the British bastardization of Indian culture.

          I mean, seriously, you can’t say Native Americans ‘own’ tomatoes just because they happened to live in the region where they originally grew, especially if other people cook entirely different dishes with them, like a lot of the Italian cuisine.

          No, but personally I see any appropriation of native American culture by European interlopers such as myself absolutely disgusting. What my ancestors did to native Americans was beyond reprehensible – we committed outright fucking genocide. And we still find ways to fuck over native Americans. Tomatoes? Not a problem. Native American cultural artifacts and heritage? A big problem.

          HOWEVER, if other people told you that this is not okay in their eyes, it would be on you to reconsider this. Again, I don’t think that this is hard.

          Given that he was rather over the top fucking with people, it’s easy to give off. But what about native Americans who are sincere and who disagree? Whose word are we supposed to accept? Personally, I just gave my opinion of things native American, but that’s just me and if there is any native American heritage in my past, it has been diluted by centuries. But these are legitimate conflicts and they aren’t even simplified by stepping off so as not to offend, because there are native Americans who really do welcome the interest and who would at the least be disappointed if you let someone else discourage you because it offends them. Then there is the complication of those who have relatively little native American heritage and where they have a right to explore that part of their ancestry. There are native Americans who believe that if you have less than some percentage of native American blood, you just aren’t welcome to explore certain sacred experiences – while others say that such people not only have a right, they have an obligation to help keep that culture alive.

          However, I still think that there is a difference between characteristics that are important to you because they are traditional and represent your heritage, and characteristics that you chose yourself (e.g. being a sceptic) and those that you are unwillingly and rather arbitrarily subjected to (e.g. being poor), even if those characteristics put you in the view of society into a certain group of people.

          And where are those lines reasonably drawn? Protestant Christianity is part of my cultural heritage. I am not raising my children with that cultural heritage, because I am a skeptic and an atheist. That is the background my kids will have to draw from as they become adults – does that just not count as a part of their heritage? I am not making the claim that this is a significant cultural delineation – it isn’t. But I don’t think it is reasonable to dismiss it outright either.

          My kids have also grown up thus far, living just above and at times below the poverty level. There is absolutely a culture of poverty – something I have done my damndest to insulate them from, but it exists and a lot of kids don’t have the privilege of being insulated from it. It is really fucking easy to not see how these delineations count as cultural differences when you don’t exist within them. When you have people you work for putting you in your place to throw that difference into sharp relief, it becomes a lot easier to understand. And when you are surrounded by generational poverty, it becomes even easier to see that this is a cultural delineation.

          It’s not about how “society” views it, it’s about the view from within it. And I would note that there are some very good reasons that academia has started to explore cyclic poverty from a cultural anthropological perspective, instead of as a sociological problem. Diving all that far into that would be to wander way the hell off the topic, but doing so may work out as being a solid first step towards real progress. Because the bottom line is that poor people aren’t stupid – regardless of how many of them would argue that they must be – because that is the sort of bullshit that takes the power of cultural transmission to perpetuate.

          And just to be very clear – culture isn’t always about religion, race and ethnicity, they just tend to be the bits that get focused on more than others.

          • Avicenna

            I am Scottish Indian-Khmer (yeah really) and no one really cares… We absolutely give 0 fucks about what other people do since culture is something that changes over time and is regularly appropriated and stolen from each other. I mean… You wouldn’t have the Beatles and the sound of the 60s without Indian Music. How is that cultural appropriation? I mean, it’s not like white people stole the stupid crap. I mean white people aren’t insisting that if you are called Taylor you must marry other Taylors and be a tailor. (Let’s just say someone called Fletcher would be really screwed in the modern era…).

            I mean seriously? We actually like it when you guys dress up like us. It’s not insulting. If you spend any time around us we will try and dress you up ourselves.

            For fuck’s sake how many people dress up like scottish people? Do you see scottish people go “Och! The fecking bastards stole our kilts and heritage! I demand you dinnae wear kilts lest ye sully our culture! And you cannae have haggis or cullen skink neither. Also give back the pipes! Only we may sound like we are strangling an inflated octopus.”

            What they were complaining about was people dressing as STEREOTYPES and for Halloween without realising the cultural implications of what they were doing and the meanings associated with the culture. I am sure mexicans have no qualms with someone dressing up as an aztec, what they do have qualms about is people dressing up like a lazy Sancho Panza. And not knowing who he is. I am pretty sure scottish people would be insulted if you donned a ginger wig and spoke like Mel Gibson while wearing a kilt solely for the purpose of flashing women while eating a fake haggis. I mean we can differentiate between puzzling uptake of culture, and people being racist pricks.

            I mean seriously? Are white people insulted that people in Japan and India and (probably) China do “White People Things” and “Dress like White People”. I mean, I wear Jeans and T-Shirt. Does this make me some sort of horrific cultural traitor because I don’t roam around bekilted (MacLeod – My grandfather’s clan) or dressed in lungi or the jade outfits of my ancestors?

            And for the record I would love that people paid attention to the Khmer cultures of the world because we are dying out too. The cultural revolution in China and the Khmer Rouge and the Burmese Junta destroyed what we had left leaving it a shell of itself. There are a handful of old khmer left and even their culture was destroyed by the uptake of Baptist Christianity. I would be happy if someone wrote God of Flowers (It’s my name) on their arm. I am half tamil too. I would love it if more people read and liked the stuff that belongs to that side of the culture as much as they like and are familiar with scottish culture.

            And no I won’t get angry if you decide to wear a Sari or the pottu or if you really want to do the Neck rings thing.

          • DuWayne

            Avicenna -

            “Cultural appropriation” is actually a values neutral term. Though a lot of people use it as though it always equals “a bad thing,” it is most often manifested in an ambivalent fashion. In many cases, it is even desirable. Believe me, there are folks who would be thrilled to see that U.S. American cultural icon that is McDonalds spread far and wide and to the fucking moon when that is possible.

            Too many people try to shove “culture” into a very narrow box that includes only things that are of a specific type of significance. Or they assume that the culture that is important is the only sort that can reasonably be considered “appropriated.”

            And for the record I would love that people paid attention to the Khmer cultures of the world because we are dying out too.

            I am not saying that this is the case here, but keep in mind that in some cultures there are members who would much rather see their culture die than be kept alive by people not of their culture. There are a good many native Americans who feel this way about their own cultures. They are so disgusted (much in the way I describe above) by the notion that the descendents of the white asshats who attempted to destroy their culture by genocide would try to save it, that some go to fairly extreme lengths to prevent it. Ironically, those attempts to prevent it (keep in mind that some in their cultures might disagree) have led to further atrocities by the FBI and other predominantly white authorities.

  • Crommunist

    Luckily I was able to stop my eyes rolling long enough to find this post. And I guess this one is useful too.

    The TL/DR version of this post is “some people don’t like it when the majority group ‘purposefully borrows’ their culture to make a fashion statement. I don’t care though, because I have a definition from this textbook that says nobody owns culture.” Pro tip: if you don’t have anything useful to say about a topic that you don’t understand (which you admit right at the end), then maybe don’t write a whole post about it. Especially if you’re not going to bother researching any of the criticisms of your position.

    If you’re planning on doing further discussion of this issue in the future, it’s actually REALLY EASY to know where ‘the line’ is. When someone from the culture says “hey, don’t fucking do that”, then you’ve crossed the line. All the sophistry you can conjure won’t change that fact. Culture is something you can access through participation, not that you can ‘borrow’ elements of for fun without understanding any of the issues surrounding it.

    • ashleyjones

      I actually read both of those articles while doing my research but thanks for posting them for others to read.

      You assume I’m talking about the majority when I speak about borrowing cultural elements, I myself am not part of the majority (I’m black) and am speaking from a general perspective. Or are you implying that cultural appropriation can only be done by those in the majority? I would disagree with you if that’s what you’re saying, if a Bolivian person were to wear a First Nations warbonnet it would still be cultural appropriation. That quote actually didn’t say that nobody owns culture I questioned whether if culture is knowledge can it be owned and stated my own opinion about the matter. I’ve actually done quite a bit of research on the subject including but not limited to , , and the Native Appropriations blog on blogspot.

      As far as knowing where the line is and following what someone says from the culture, would you feel that if a black person told a white person they could wear black face that it would be okay? Or if, say for instance, there was a large Japanese movement to stop none Japanese from using chop sticks would we be obligated to stop using them? How many people have to say that something is not okay for it to be not okay or conversely how many people have to say something is okay to make it so? I personally don’t like the phrase “African American” being applied to me but others prefer the term. I’m not going to jump down people’s throats if they refer to me as African American because I know there’s not a consensus.

      In my post I advocate for people learning the significance of the things they borrow or “access through participation”. Borrowing cultural elements is not in and of itself offensive but doing so without understanding the issues around what you’re borrowing or the cultural significance can be.

    • DuWayne

      When someone from the culture says “hey, don’t fucking do that”, then you’ve crossed the line.

      I’m sorry, but that is a load of bullocks. I’m not saying that it isn’t a generally reasonable approach to take, but in a lot of cases there is one person saying it’s ok and someone else getting offended. Who has the right of it isn’t necessarily all that simple and in some cases deciding to back down so as not to offend person two might offend person one who invited you to take part in something with them. And this isn’t sophistry, it’s an honest understanding that this stuff just doesn’t boil down to simplistic dichotomies.

  • Janee

    I don’t agree with your comparison of cultural appropriation and the use of Ramen, rainbows, or “garage” at all.
    The difference is the significance of the object in question.
    If Ramen were sacred, or rainbows were an award given only to specific people, then there would be a valid comparison.
    Cultural appropriation and cultural exchange aren’t the same thing. Appropriation is when an object of significant importance (native headdresses, the make-up shown in the comic, medals of valor) is misused in every day circumstances. Hipster photos of headdresses? They don’t know the significance and are ignorant or do know the significance and are racist: they’re sacred, earned items only for specific types of people (in this case, Native American chiefs.) To misuse an object like that isn’t exchanging cultures, it’s stealing and disrespecting them.
    Yeah, you’re going to offend someone. But when someone is offend with good reason, and it’s THEIR culture you’re offending? You stop. You don’t try to explain how not-racist you are, you don’t go on the defense; it’s a culture they live with every day, and it isn’t your place to misuse it.

    • ashleyjones

      “Appropriation is when an object of significant importance (native headdresses, the make-up shown in the comic, medals of valor) is misused in every day circumstances.”

      So if Christians tell me, an atheist, not to celebrate Christmas I shouldn’t? Or if Muslims tell me not to draw Mohammad, should I refrain from doing so? I think many secular people would agree that I shouldn’t refrain from doing either of those things because they’re sacred to certain religions. Those religions, while not typically thought of as such, are indeed cultures.

      People tend to think of cultures as “people from x country” but there can be socio-economic cultures, religious cultures, racial cultures, etc. We are all made of of layers of different cultures. I’m with 6. Sophia Dodd “Why, when something is ‘sacred’ in a religious context, is it perfectly fine to challenge it, citing that people don’t have a right to not be offended, whereas if an item is ‘sacred’ to a culture, we somehow go out of our way to tiptoe around the issue and if that person takes offense, argue vehemently in their defense?” I do believe that we should take into account the complex issues and histories surrounding the elements (I say elements because not all cultural artifacts are tangible objects; language, mannerisms, and ideas can all be linked with certain cultures) and decide where to go from there.

  • Sophia Dodds

    Hm. I need to ask this, despite my huge reservations about posting something in an emotionally-charged topic such as this:

    Why, when something is ‘sacred’ in a religious context, is it perfectly fine to challenge it, citing that people don’t have a right to not be offended, whereas if an item is ‘sacred’ to a culture, we somehow go out of our way to tiptoe around the issue and if that person takes offense, argue vehemently in their defense?

    Sorry, I just can’t wrap my brain around this. It feels far too much like a double standard, though I’m probably missing something fundamentally simple, knowing me. :|

    • Sophia Dodds


      Thinking on this issue more only opens up more cans of proverbial worms. Firstly, is this an issue of majority VS minority, and if so, does that mean we should show -more- respect toward minority/culturally-infused/opressed religious groups, regardless of their beliefs?
      On this same issue, what differentiates the offense felt by Native Americans to a photograph of someone wearing a chief’s headdress from the offense felt by Catholics when Prof. Meyers (in a much more blatant and intentional display) desecrated a consecrated wafer? Should either offended party be taken seriously, and why?

      If it’s an issue of morality and tact regarding offense, does that simply mean that there is no definitive ‘right and true’ position to be held on this issue? As we’re not dealing with demonstrably false truth claims, are those claims the only mitigating factor in deciding whether or not someone has the right to be offended?

      How closely are culture and religion intertwined?

      It’s a minefield that I don’t know how to cross, honestly. I’m the last person ever to want to offend anyone (even the religious, unless I’m actively engaged in debate and cannot really do otherwise) though I’m sure that pretty much anything I do could be construed as offensive by someone on this planet of ours. I so often hear that intent isn’t a magic thing that absolves you of all blame, and neither is ignorance. I agree about ignorance, not sure about intent, as in my limited experience that ignorance is the cause of most well-intentioned though ultimately offensive or otherwise negative acts.

      • DuWayne

        The key is whether you think the offense or the person who has been offended are worthy of your concern or can be balanced against the benefit you gain from said offense. You might even purposefully try to offend someone or a group of people – such as PZ Meyers and the consecrated wafer. That’s really something you need to consider for yourself.

        For my own part, nothing is sacred – and I mean nothing. There are a lot of things that I will respect as important to other people – whether that is some component of culture, or items of special personal significance. I tend to give a lot of preferential consideration to peoples who have been dealt with atrocities, but even that isn’t an absolute. In the end it is complicated and entirely up to the beholder.

        • Anonymous

          Ah, yes. I think you’ve nailed the rub of it there, differentiating between something being ‘important’ and something being ‘sacred’. Importance isn’t something we generally question, as it’s a personal and subjective thing, even within a cultural segment. What’s important to one member may be irrelevant to another, etc. Labelling anything as ‘sacred’, however, is imbuing that thing with an -absolute- importance, implying that we may never question the importance of that thing.

          If someone asks you to respect that they regard something as important, it’s them asking you to respect their personal belief or opinion that that item/concept isn’t really yours to appropriate. The decision is yours alone, and a question of personal moral choice.
          If someone demands that you respect something as sacred, they are -imposing- upon you the sanctity of that thing as an absolute truth. The respect that thing receives is no longer a personal moral issue, but one of a perceived transgression against the entire subset of people that consider that thing sacred.

          It’s a similar issue to ‘attack the belief, not the believer’. What people are doing by calling things ‘sacred’ is in essence equating any attack on that thing to an attack on the entire culture. It’s a false equivalency.

          • Sophia Dodds

            Sorry, that was me again! probably self-evident due to the massive exploitation of poor, defenseless commas :)

  • Avicenna

    What people are annoyed about are ridiculous appropriations of culture that are not true or are insulting. Most people do not mind if you dress in the costumes of the culture they are from. I suppose because not many people have the balls (Innuendo!) to pull of a kilt. Or indeed to wear a lungi or dress in an Indian outfit. In addition those things are actually pretty pricey. You deciding that you want to dress Indian for a halloween is a pretty hefty monetary decision. And we appreciate those…

    People strangely assume that everyone dresses in one type of clothing in a specific culture.

    Remember, no one thinks Japan are culturally insensitive for wearing Jeans and T-Shirts.